November 25, 2008

Playing Indian for Thanksgiving

Claremont parents clash over kindergarten Thanksgiving costumes

Some say having students dress up as pilgrims and Native Americans is 'demeaning.' Their opponents say they are elitists injecting politics into a simple children's celebration.For decades, Claremont kindergartners have celebrated Thanksgiving by dressing up as pilgrims and Native Americans and sharing a feast. But on Tuesday, when the youngsters meet for their turkey and songs, they won't be wearing their hand-made bonnets, headdresses and fringed vests.

Parents in this quiet university town are sharply divided over what these construction-paper symbols represent: A simple child's depiction of the traditional (if not wholly accurate) tale of two factions setting aside their differences to give thanks over a shared meal? Or a cartoonish stereotype that would never be allowed of other racial, ethnic or religious groups?

"It's demeaning," Michelle Raheja, the mother of a kindergartner at Condit Elementary School, wrote to her daughter's teacher. "I'm sure you can appreciate the inappropriateness of asking children to dress up like slaves (and kind slave masters), or Jews (and friendly Nazis), or members of any other racial minority group who has struggled in our nation's history."

Raheja, whose mother is a Seneca, wrote the letter upon hearing of a four-decade district tradition, where kindergartners at Condit and Mountain View elementary schools take annual turns dressing up and visiting the other school for a Thanksgiving feast. This year, the Mountain View children would have dressed as Native Americans and walked to Condit, whose students would have dressed as Pilgrims.

Raheja, an English professor at UC Riverside who specializes in Native American literature, said she met with teachers and administrators in hopes that the district could hold a public forum to discuss alternatives that celebrate thankfulness without "dehumanizing" her daughter's ancestry.

"There is nothing to be served by dressing up as a racist stereotype," she said.
Hmm. "Simple child's depiction" or cartoonish stereotype"? Not a tough call. The latter, obviously.

Really...has any school in the last 50 years dressed up its students to be blacks (with shoe-polished faces) or Jews (with big noses and beards)? Then why in the world would schools think it's okay to dress them up as Indians? Because the schools are too stupid to understand that "Indian" is a racial and cultural identity, not an occupation? Or because they're too ignorant to realize that a diverse array of Indians are still living and thriving?

I don't think I've ever heard of anyone's protesting a Halloween Thanksgiving dress-up event. This may be a first. And it's about time.

Then there's this tidbit:Kathleen Lucas, a Condit parent who is of Choctaw heritage, said her son--now a first-grader--still wears the vest and feathered headband he made last year to celebrate the holiday.

"My son was so proud," she said. "In his eyes, he thinks that's what it looks like to be Indian."
Comment:  Out of the mouths of babes....

Apparently Lucas thought she was making a pro-costume argument. Actually, she's given us the quintessential anti-costume argument. Kids dress up like stereotypical Plains Indians, and fix this image in their minds permanently. This becomes their primary idea of what an Indian is for the rest of their lives.

That Lucas is part Choctaw is the ironic icing on the cake. Did her Choctaw ancestors dress up like her son has? Then why is she encouraging him to learn phony history instead of real history?

Education or entertainment?

Recall that this event is supposed to be educational, not entertaining. So the real test is what the kids learned, if anything. How did dressing up as Indians contribute to their education about Indians?

For instance, did they learn anything about the real Wampanoag Indians? Anything about the history of New England's Indians before or after the "first Thanksgiving"? Anything about the differences between Wampanoag, Plains, Choctaw, and other Indians? Do they even realize they dressed up as stereotypes and not as real Indians?

It's a safe bet that the answers to these questions is no. If so, playing Pilgrims 'n' Indians provides no educational benefit and should be eliminated. Those who disagree are the ones with an agenda.

The pro-Thanksgiving agenda

And we know what that agenda is, don't we? It's to repeat and reinforce our founding Thanksgiving myth. Namely, the idea that America was and is a "shining city on a hill." It goes something like this:

America was founded as a land of peace and harmony, where everyone was free and equal. Our ancestors were (and we are) exceptionally good and noble people. They earned what they got through hard work and perseverance, so we deserve to keep our white privileges and world domination.

For more on this story, see Police Prevent Thanksgiving Brawl and Parents to Indians:  Go to Hell. For more on the subject in general, see Tricking or Treating Indians.

Below:  "I'm a Wampanoag Indian...a Plains Indian...a Choctaw Indian. Mommy, I'm confused."

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